Court rules museum can keep Nazi-looted Adam and Eve masterpieces with a hidden past

They are a seductive pair: Adam, on a painted panel more than 6 feet tall, holds the apple of temptation. Eve, watched closely by a serpent, cradles an apple on her own panel moments before the act that will lead to the biblical couple’s expulsion from Eden.

The two masterpieces, created by German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder around 1530 and eventually purchased by American industrialist Norton Simon in 1971, are displayed prominently in the northeast gallery of the Pasadena museum that is named after him. 

The tangled history of how they got there has been the focus of a nearly decade-long legal struggle by the daughter-in-law of the Dutch Jewish art dealer whose firm was coerced into selling “Adam” and “Eve” decades ago to the Nazis, along with tens of thousands of great works of art owned by Jews.

She wants them back, arguing that the works — believed to now be worth tens of millions of dollars — were looted by the Nazis. But last week U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter ruled that the Norton Simon Museum is the rightful owner of the paintings. 

Marei von Saher, the art dealer’s daughter-in-law, plans to appeal rather than give up. Indeed, many valuable artworks obtained by the Nazis have been returned over the years to survivors of families like hers.  

But this case, which encompasses the history of European tumult in the first half of the 20th century, contains an array of difficult narratives about who is allowed to lay claim to the art — raising moral and legal questions about the murkiness of ownership in the chaos of revolution and war. One of those questions: Should it matter if the person trying to reclaim Nazi-looted art is the daughter of a Nazi?

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Last week’s decision rests on the more narrow legal notion that representatives of the art dealership of dealer Jacques Goudstikker, Von Saher’s father-in-law, intentionally decided not to seek restitution of the works after the war for financial reasons, thereby abandoning the family’s claim to the art. 

“The court’s decision is based on the merits,” said a statement from the Norton Simon, “considering the facts and law at the heart of the dispute.”

But these cases are not always settled on legal grounds alone. In 2006, after an eight-year court battle, Von Saher secured the return of more than 200 Goudstikker paintings from the Netherlands  — including important canvases by 17th century painters such as Jan Steen and Jan van Goyen — after a Dutch government committee cited a shift “from a purely legal approach” to “a more moral policy approach.”

This is language Von Saher has cited in her attempt to seek restitution of the Cranach paintings.

“Obviously, Ms. von Saher is disappointed with the court’s decision,” representatives from Von Saher’s legal firm Herrick Feinstein said in an emailed statement. “Over the many years that she has sought justice for the theft of Jacques Goudstikker’s property by the Nazis, Ms. von Saher has been gratified by her many successes, especially when those in possession of her artworks have done the right thing and returned the works to her without having to resort to litigation.”

Like so many restitution cases, this one pries open a painful chapter in Western history. But this particular case has an additional layer that reveals how far the tentacles of the past can reach into the present. 

Buried in the legal motions exchanged by the museum and Von Saher is evidence that Von Saher’s father was a member of the Nazi Party. 

Born Marei Langenbein, Von Saher is the daughter of Kurt Langenbein, a talented soccer player who played for a local club in Mannheim as well as for the German national team in the 1930s, when Adolf Hitler had already solidified his power.

The Bundesarchiv, the German federal archive in Berlin, holds a copy of Langenbein’s membership record for the Nazi Party, as well as other documents, including a resume, an employment application and a declaration that he is neither a Jew nor a communist. The file also holds a hand-written note from Langenbein to a functionary at the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (run by Joseph Goebbels) that ends with the sign-off, “Heil Hitler!” 

Like most young German men at the time, Langenbein completed military service. He fought and was injured at the Battle of Stalingrad.

Langenbein, who died in 1978, may have simply done what he needed to survive. (The handwritten letter was an attempt to seek employment as a stenographer at the propaganda ministry.)

Von Saher, born in 1944, was only 1 when the war ended and 2 when her parents divorced, and she remained in the custody of her mother.

Raised in West Germany, she pursued a successful career as a professional ice skater (touring at one point with the 1970 production of “Holiday on Ice” in the U.S.). She met her husband, Edward von Saher (Goudstikker’s son), in the 1960s, and the two settled in Greenwich, Conn., where they raised two daughters, Charlène and Charlotte.

In a statement to The Times, Von Saher’s legal team said she had no knowledge of her father’s Nazi history until January, when she was presented with the information by lawyers working for the Norton Simon.

“Using this information in an attempt to discredit Ms. von Saher is nothing more than a distasteful device to evade responsibility for refusing to restitute artworks that were indisputably stolen from her husband’s family.”

In a June motion, her lawyers argued that her “father’s role as a German national was irrelevant” to prior restitution cases pursued by their client.

Lawyers for the Norton Simon, however, argued that the information is relevant — since it could have affected the Dutch government’s view on the case. (The former Dutch deputy culture minister, who handled the restitution case for the Von Sahers, could not be reached for comment.)

But Kevin P. Ray, a lawyer who specializes in art and cultural heritage law at Greenberg Traurig in Chicago, said Langenbein’s Nazi membership likely “would not play any part in the court’s decision.”

This latest revelation about Von Saher’s family is just one more chapter in the tangled history of “Adam” and “Eve” and their unusually fraught journey over the past century. 

By the early 1900s, Cranach’s paintings had made their way to Ukraine, where one or both were, by various accounts, either the property of the noble Stroganoff family or the Church of the Holy Trinity in Kiev when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917. The following year, they were seized as property of the Soviet Union, which, desperate for foreign currency, sold them at a Berlin auction to Goudstikker in 1931.

Nine years later, the Nazis invaded Holland and Goudstikker was forced to flee with his family, leaving behind his gallery with its more than 1,000 works of art. But he never made it to America. Out for a nighttime walk on the blacked-out ocean freighter, he fell into an open hold and broke his neck. On his body was a little black book that detailed his firm’s inventory.

The Goudstikker Firm was taken over by new managers, who were forced to sell the Cranachs and several hundred other works to Nazi commander Goering. He dispatched “Adam” and “Eve” to his country estate near Berlin, which was filled with masterpieces by a who’s who of Western art history — from Rubens to Renoir.

After the war, about 400 of the Goudstikker Firm’s paintings — including the Cranachs — were recovered by Allied Forces and returned to the Netherlands, where the Dutch government established a legal process for restitution. Claimants had to return money from the Nazis in order to get their property back. The deadline, according to a decree titled E100, was July 1, 1951.

In his order for summary judgment, Walter cited a 1950 memorandum written by a high-ranking official at the Goudstikker Firm that appears to explain why the family never asked for the return of their paintings. It would have, the memo said, resulted in a “considerable reduction in the [firm’s] liquid assets.”

Moreover, the firm would have been “left with a large number of works of art that are difficult to sell,” including many that “had proved unmarketable for dozens of years that had been written down to a value of [1 guilder].”

The Goudstikkers did petition the government for other assets, such as real estate, entering into a settlement agreement in 1952. (One which Dési Goudstikker, Jacques’ widow, described as “unfair in the extreme.”)

Because “no original owners asserted a claim” to the Cranachs, Walter wrote, the Netherlands “acquired ownership under international law.”

“Adam” and “Eve” remained in the Netherlands’ national art collection until the 1960s, when the Russian-born aristocrat George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff petitioned for the return of the paintings on the grounds that they had been illegally seized by the Soviets from his family’s collection after the Russian Revolution. 

There is debate on all sides about whether the Cranachs truly belonged to the Stroganoffs. Still, the Dutch government reached a settlement with Stroganoff-Scherbatoff that allowed him to acquire the paintings in 1966. Stroganoff-Scherbatoff then sold “Adam” and “Eve” to Norton Simon, the “mercurial Medici of L.A. art,” in 1971. 

Simon paid $800,000 for the pair — the equivalent of about $4.8 million today. (According to a 2006 appraisal, they may be worth upward of $24 million.)

Von Saher began seeking restitution for her in-laws’ art in the late 1990s — after both Edward and his mother had passed away. At that time, a Dutch government commission had been looking into whether restitution had been managed fairly in the years following the war. 

By many accounts, the restitution system put in place after the war was not sympathetic to claimants. In a 1998 report, the Dutch government found that the system had been “generally … legalistic, bureaucratic, cold and even callous.” (In Germany, authorities sometimes returned paintings to the former Nazis who had plundered them.)

But Ray, the art and cultural heritage lawyer, noted that the Goudstikker case is unique — and that the U.S. District Court decision centers on a firm making a business decision, not a family petitioning for the return of a personal collection.

“Having read through the decision I would be surprised if it is overturned,” he said. “It doesn’t look to me like the court has really gone out on a limb in any of its conclusions.”

So once again “Adam” and “Eve” slip into their familiar state of uncertainty — works twice plundered, permeated by a messy, violent history, one that touches both sides of a family and both sides of a war.

Where fate will take them next won’t be decided until the appeal. That is likely years away.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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